Prudence vs Bravado: Balancing the Future of Big Wave Surfing

Matt Rott

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Updated 76d ago

The big wave contest ran at Puerto Escondido last week, and although the waves weren’t exactly XXL, they were large enough to provide a bit of excitement. More importantly, they gave us an interesting look at two different approaches to heavy water exploits.

A couple of weeks ago, Greg Long was in South Africa, and injured his knee doing a cutback on a two-foot wave at J-Bay.

Compared to most of the waves he’s surfed over the past 20-years, this one barely registered as a ripple, yet the injury was enough to make him stop and take stock. Greg is known for being one of the most calculated and prepared big wave surfers out there.

Almost one year ago to the day as this wave, I had to drag myself up the sand at Zicatela after blowing out my knee, and nearly being knocked unconscious...The result of a mis-timed drop and poorly executed effort to sneak under the lip of a wave. There exists a twisted, yet beautiful irony in this world. A concept of duality, in which we couldn't harbor the full capacity to appreciate something, having not experienced the opposite at some point in our lives. That the ability in which we feel love or joy would be limited having not experienced some form of struggle,sadness or suffering; or in this case, the amazing waves would not be ingrained in our memories with such detail or fondness had it not been for all the failed attempts, or sessions we didn't catch a decent ride. Or in the case of Puerto, potentially not even standing up on a wave altogether. (There has been no shortage of those sessions throughout my time spent there). This wasn't my biggest or best wave out there, but I will remember it forever as one of my all time favorites. A sentiment I can only attribute to the fact that last year's experience was so rough, as were the arduous months thereafter on the road to recovery. With every deep feeling we have, somewhere on the other end within our consciousness expands the capacity for us to experience the opposite at some point. The seemingly negative there to enhance the positive later on, and vice versa. We live in an existence of duality, Yin and yang, where all energy and emotions are intimately intertwined working synergistically to help us cultivate the ability to continuously feel on a deeper level. All of which ultimately leads us to a fuller life, and learning experience. The last few days were a joy seeing so many friends get amazing rides and managing to find a few of my own as well. To those who went down hard, I'm wishing you the fastest of recovery and look forward to seeing you back out experiencing the blissful satisfaction of gliding through a gem out there very soon. And as always, the utmost gratitude to the Puerto locals for sharing their home and waves with us. Drone mastery by: @ready2fly_imagens_aereas

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He listens carefully to his intuition, controls all of the variables that he can, and makes sure he’s prepared for the worst when it comes to the variables that he can’t. He’s also a two-time big wave world champ, multiple XXL Awards winner, and one of the most respected names in big wave surfing.

When he decided to withdraw from the Puerto Escondido contest because he didn’t feel he would be 100 per cent equipped to send it on the biggest waves—the ones that you need to send it on if you want to compete at the highest level—no one questioned his commitment. When he decided to withdraw from the Puerto Escondido contest no one questioned his commitmentInstead, they applauded him for his prudence and put him in the commentary booth (where he performs nearly as well as he does in the water), looking forward to him being in competitive shape for the northern hemisphere events later this year.

Jamie Mitchell, on the other hand, broke his sternum out at Puerto in mid-July. During a warm-up swell a few weeks before the contest, he packed a closeout and took his board to the chest, suffering one of the most painful broken bones possible.

Jamie is arguably the best waterman in the world—he’s the most decorated paddler of all time, was named performer of the year at the Big Wave Awards in April, and won the wildest big wave contest ever at Nazare back in December—and yet he still barely made it to shore.

His arms didn’t want to work, he could barely breathe, and it took him 10 minutes to escape the Puerto rip, where he was cycled back into the impact zone a dozen times. It was the most scared he has been in the water, and that’s saying a lot, considering the waves he has paddled over the years.

At Jamie’s age, it takes around eight weeks for a broken bone to heal, and the sternum is one that can’t be immobilized with a cast, so no one expected him to show up for the contest this week—especially considering that a second impact to his broken sternum could kill him if he were unlucky enough to rupture his pericardium.

But Jamie knows that there are only three events on tour this year, and that he has a family to provide for, with his second child due later this month. Plus, he simply loves surfing and competing in big waves.

So when he paddled out for his round 1 heat at Puerto on Monday, nobody questioned him. In fact, most people hailed him for his heroism and commitment—especially when he ended up taking second place in the contest (and nearly winning the thing, if not for a last-minute tube ride by Kai Lenny).

Now Greg and Jamie are both friends of mine, and far better big wave surfers than me, so I am certainly not going to judge either of their choices.

I can understand where both were coming from, and could make arguments to defend and even celebrate both of their decisions, despite the fact that they were complete opposites. But what I find more interesting is that the differences in their approaches seem to be a direct reflection of the current crossroads that the sport is facing.

Big wave surfing has never lacked in heroics. In fact, many might say that there is nothing responsible about paddling out in 30-to-60-foot waves. But the last-15 years have seen a major movement towards preparation and prudence.

Jamie Mitchell on his way to taking victory at the Nazare Challenge.

Jamie Mitchell on his way to taking victory at the Nazare Challenge.

From the introduction of floatation vests and rescue trainings to the calculated approaches of athletes like Greg, big wave surfing has in many ways become safer, while still progressing into realms that were previously considered untouchable.

That being said, the past 18 months have seen barriers broken at an accelerated rate. Thresholds have been pushed to their limits as a new generation of chargers has pushed ever harder, often with seeming disregard for their safety.

Guys like Aaron Gold, Pedro Calado, and Lucas Chumbo have earned places in the big leagues by chasing every swell that pops up and regularly sending it on next-level behemoths.

The media and public love their commitment, and the WSL has rewarded them with full-time spots on a tour that is increasingly geared toward spectacle. The schedule this year includes only three events—Puerto Escondido, Peahi, and Nazare—and it’s no coincidence that those three events have seen numerous injuries over the past year.

Last year’s Peahi event saw half the women’s finalists and a number of the men in the hospital, and Nazare was essentially six hours of carnage interspersed with moments of brilliance.

But they were also some of the most watched events in the history of surfing, which is arguably what a struggling sport needs if it's to find a way to be financially viable. Big drops on “soft” point breaks aren’t going to cut it anymore. People want barrels and beat downs at the heaviest waves on the planet, and that’s what the WSL aims to deliver. Big drops on “soft” point breaks aren’t going to cut it anymore At the same time, a lack of qualifying events means that there is no clear path to qualification for the big wave tour.

A handful of guys earn their way on each year through the Performer of the Year category at the Big Wave Awards, and half of the spots at each event are awarded to wildcards, who can potentially qualify for the next year’s tour on the merits of one good result.

But all of these spots are awarded through a somewhat convoluted and highly subjective selection process, which means the only real way for a guy to get onto tour is to show up and blow up at every XXL swell. This leads to a situation where guys might be going harder and risking more than they otherwise would.

Of course, this makes for a lot of entertainment and drama for spectators, in both contests and freesurfs. For some reason, humans seem to love watching other people get drilled, and the potential for carnage is probably as much of a draw for big wave spectating as the successfully ridden waves (the Cape Fear event is a great example of this). But between a growing number of big wave surfers, the qualification situation, and the illusion of safety provided by inflation vests and jet ski rescues, there are some who argue that big wave surfing is becoming less about skill, experience, and preparation, and more about being crazy enough to take risks and send it.

Case in point, a Puerto Escondido wipeout reel.

No one has died or suffered a long-term debilitating injury in a WSL event, and hopefully no one ever will. But if that were to happen, you can’t think it would be good for a sport that already struggles with funding and insurance issues (not to mention the emotional effect it would have on what is essentially a very close, tight-knit community).

At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong way to surf big waves, or even to compete in them. At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong way to surf big waves, or even to compete in themBeneath all of the hype and media and world tour rankings, this endeavor has always been an individual one—a pursuit that both connects us with nature and pits us against it, allowing us to find our personal limits and come face to face not only with our fears and egos, but also the best and strongest parts of us.

What exactly the future of big wave surfing will look like remains to be seen, but as with most things, it will likely be bravado that pushes us forward and prudence that helps sustain that progress in the long run. The challenge will be finding a balance between the two.

Cover shot: Greg Long showing exactly why he's the two-time Big Wave Tour world champion, by Cameron Nelson


Matt Rott

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